Thursday, November 12, 2009
Metro columnist Dan Casey: Gaming the SOL system a dangerous gamble
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Read Dan's blog
The longest running card game in Roanoke started sometime in May 2009, over at William Fleming High School.
Let's call it SOL poker.
That is S-O-L, as in state-mandated Standards of Learning tests, not the more common street acronym that stands for you-know-what out of luck.
The game has gone on for months. And the biggest hand so far was played Tuesday night at the Roanoke School Board meeting.
The two remaining card players are Susan Willis, the school's suspended-with-pay principal, and the school board, which unanimously sent the message that she has to go.
Tuesday night, Willis treated the board's decision to fire her as a bluff, and she raised the ante. She threatened to sue and drag out this proceeding, potentially for many more months and who knows how many more thousands of taxpayer dollars.
But the hand didn't end there.
The school board raised the ante too, by hinting it might sue Willis to recover all the money it has paid her since her suspension, as well as taxpayer dollars it has spent trying to assess and undo this scandal.
Lost in the drama of all that bluffing and raising are the hundreds of students according to the school system who were negatively affected by this mess.
You could call them Students Out of Luck.
Some graduated with substandard diplomas. Others are repeating courses they've already taken.
For example, schools spokeswoman Tiffany Woods told me Wednesday that 29 seniors and 66 juniors are taking ninth-grade level Earth Science at Fleming right now.
Could it be that, unbeknownst to them, they were electronically removed from that diploma-track course in prior years?
Why else would that many upperclassmen be taking a freshman-level course?
To get back to the poker analogy, those SOL tests were a stacked deck. The system was rigged to inflate the school's scores.
Willis claims she was framed by underlings who conspired with school system higher ups against her.
You would think if there was evidence of that, a majority of the panel members who heard her grievance would have sided with her. But that didn't happen.
She also says the complete record of the closed hearing supports her contention that she did nothing wrong.
But you know what? She's the only one with the clear legal right to release that record. So far she has declined.
That's what should tell you those claims are yet more card-table bluffs, and hollow ones at that.
One thing that's been clear from the beginning of the mess is that it's beyond doubt that somebody at William Fleming rigged the system. Three of Willis' underlings have resigned and a fourth was demoted.
But it happened on her watch.
Even if we give Willis the greatest possible benefit of the doubt, she was either negligent to allow it, or so horribly naive that she shouldn't be principal at one of the city's two high schools in the first place.
The other possibilities are darker ones -- that Willis participated in the test rigging, or worse, masterminded it.
In that case, if the school system were a casino, Willis would be dragged out the front door and sternly warned never to come back.
Guess what? That's exactly what the school board did Tuesday night.
But given the sneaky cheating that occurred and the ever-growing number of student losers, this case demands scrutiny beyond a grievance hearing, a firing or an ugly lawsuit.
Many laws govern student testing. State and federal prosecutors ought to look into whether crimes were committed and who, if anyone, committed them.
After all, we expect cheating in casinos. They're a racket where most suckers lose their money and some lose their souls.
But education is no casino racket.
Prosecute school system cheaters and they'll learn that lesson.